"The incidents at Kinderland should not have happened and are not representative of the vast majority of preschool educators," Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Home Affairs and Social and Family Development, said during the parliamentary session on Sep. 18.
"To prevent such incidents from happening, ECDA will work closely with the preschool sector to strengthen our system of multi-layered safeguards, which has been built up over the years," Sun said, referring to the alleged child abuse cases in preschools that surfaced on social media in late August 2023.
System of multi-layered safeguards
Sun said ECDA has clear policies and requirements that establish the baseline for a safe and positive learning environment in preschools.
She added that ECDA has also clarified what actions educators cannot subject children to under its regulations.
"This includes force-feeding and corporal punishment. For example, striking a child or any other form of aggressive contact, neglecting the child, and causing psychological trauma," Sun supplied.
One video capturing the alleged abuse at Kinderland Woodlands Mart branch saw a 33-year-old teacher pulling a girl forcefully and pinching her cheeks to get her to drink water.
ECDA's Code of Practice stipulates that educators' interactions with children must be respectful, responsive, and reciprocal to support children's learning and development.
"ECDA will take action against operators and educators found to have breached any of these requirements, whether in the Act, Regulations or Code of Practice," Sun asserted.
For educators, ECDA can issue warnings or bar them from working in the sector, while serious cases involving criminal wrongdoings will be reported to the police for investigation, and the involved individual may be prosecuted in court.
Lin Min, the preschool teacher involved in the Kinderland case, currently faces one charge of ill-treating a 23-month-old girl by forcing her to lie down and pouring water into her mouth.
She has also been dismissed from her position.
For operators, ECDA can impose financial penalties, shorten the preschool's licence tenure, and, worst case, revoke the preschool's licence.
The operator behind Kinderland @ Woodlands Mart has been imposed the maximum penalty of S$5,000 and had its licence tenure reduced to six months.
"Our system of multi-layered safeguards requires operators, centres, and educators to also do their part," Sun said, adding that the regulations "make clear the obligations of operators, centres and educators in discharging their duty of care to children."
Sun added that all operators must implement standard operating procedures (SOPs) and appropriate policies within their centres, ensuring that all educators comply with these SOPs and policies.
Registered with ECDA
Not only that but all preschool educators must be certified and registered with ECDA before being deployed to teach in preschools, with ECDA working closely to verify their professional qualifications while conducting background checks.
"If there are educators assessed to pose a risk to children’s safety, they will not be allowed to be deployed," Sun asserted.
ECDA will also work with the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) and other training providers to strengthen training programmes so that all educators know their duty and obligation to ensure child safety.
Rules for incident reporting
There are multiple reporting channels available at the moment.
Under the ECDC Act and Regulations, all educators and preschool staff must report child mismanagement or abuse experienced at home or in preschools to ECDA.
ECDA's Code of Practice also requires operators to implement a policy for internal reporting of wrongdoings. Should any incidents occur, operators are to notify ECDA within 24 hours.
Alternatively, educators can also make a direct report to ECDA.
On mobile phones and CCTVs
"Any operator’s policy on the use of personal mobile devices at work should not hinder their staff from reporting any wrongdoing in their centres," Sun said.
ECDA has also made the installation of CCTV cameras mandatory in all preschools from Jul. 1 2024.
Sun said the decision was not made in reaction to recent incidents, adding that ECDA has been working towards the decision since as early as Feb. 2023.
"ECDA intends to strengthen the framework and review the provisions to see if penalties imposed on operators for child mismanagement should be enhanced, including whether financial penalties should be raised," Sun said.
Most educators are exemplary
Despite recent cases putting the preschool environment under scrutiny, Sun is positive that most educators are exemplary.
In an interview with Mothership, Centre Leader at Creative Thinkers Preschool Aishah Abdulattif said that as educators, "we centre whatever we do around the best interest of the child. The child always comes first... you should never hurt the child."
@mothershipsg a preschool educator speaks up #tiktoksg #preschool #earlyeducation #fyp ♬ original sound - Mothership
Sun added that we ought to boost the morale of preschool educators, who "have worked tirelessly to care for our children and provide them with a safe space to play and learn to grow."
ECDA is also doing their part to improve preschool educators' career proposition and working conditions.
In Oct. 2022, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said that the review of early childhood educators' salaries is expected to be completed by 2022, and these individuals can look forward to seeing the changes kick in from 2023 onwards.
ECDA is also taking steps to improve working conditions, Sun added.
"The recent spate of incidents of child mismanagement are not a reflection of the state of the preschool sector and educators. In our continuous efforts to ensure the safety of our children and support their growth and development in a positive and nurturing environment, we will learn from recent incidents to strengthen our system of preventing child mismanagement cases," Sun said.
Top image via MOE